An Introduction to Play and its Future

It is not very easy to define play as it falls into three different professional categories, which have three underpinning philosophies. In turn some of these may overlap but others can be quite distinct.

The three areas of play

  1. Learning through play whereby the play situations are devised by the adult so that through the play activity the child is able to achieve a particular learning outcome. These situations are most commonly found in early years settings such as nurseries, pre-schools, nursery schools etc.
  2. Play that is spontaneous, unscheduled, and enables the child to problem solve, have private spaces, recognising, encountering and overcoming risks etc. Free play is described by Play England as:
  3. “…..children choosing what they want to do, how they want to do it and when to stop and try something else. Free play has no external goals set by adults and has no adult imposed curriculum. Although adults usually provide the space and resources for free play and might be involved the child takes the lead and the adults respond to cues from the child.” (Santer, Griffiths with Goodall 2007). This type of play is commonly found in adventure playgrounds, playschemes, out of school clubs etc.

  4. The third type of play is therapeutic play where a child is able, through play, to work out their problems both physical and psychological. This type of play is most commonly found within the field of hospital play and play therapy.

The importance of play for our children whether this be for their learning, for their personal pleasure and development or to enable them to cope with difficult physical or psychological situations is very clear.

As Hughes (2001) points out in relation to free play, “Play is a very personal experience. For some it is dolls and fights; for others it is climbing and skipping. It is what children do when adults are not there or what children do when the adults are perceived as honorary children”.

Different tasks: different qualifications

With each type of play mentioned above there are different types of qualifications for the staff who are involved in the play. For example, early years practitioners are predominantly dealing with learning through play and have qualifications from the early years sector.

Spontaneous and unscheduled play tends to be in the field of the Playworker whose qualifications will be based upon the playwork philosophies and will cover the birth to 16 years age groups.

For the area of therapeutic play there are Hospital Play Specialists and Child Psychotherapists who deal with individual children, each of whom have their specialist qualifications.

It is unusual to find workers who have qualifications in more than one of these fields and this can lead to a lack of understanding about the different philosophies which underpin the different types of play.

Threats to play

At present day there appear to be two areas within society which are diverting children away from play.

First, there is the idea that after school / extended day facilities must be based on academic activities and homework. This is often to satisfy both school and parents, since both are concerned with the child and the school doing well in SATs tests. The erosion of the free play factor within the after school / extended day facilities is very worrying, as many children need the opportunity not only to undertake physical activities but also to play freely with other children or on their own. This time should be relaxing and enjoyable for them and not be spent as an extension of the school day called a homework club.

Secondly, there appears to be an obsession on the part of society in general, and parents in particular, about children’s safety, which requires all day to day activities for children to be exciting but totally free from risk . Tim Gill (2007) has produced a very interesting document in which he demonstrates how opportunities for children are being curtailed by safety regulations and how some of these regulations are counter-productive in terms of protecting children. Gill points out that risk-taking can build children’s character and personality, resulting in them being adventurous and entrepreneurial, and enabling them to develop resilience and self-reliance.

He also points out that £200-£300 million has been spent on playground safety, mostly on rubber surfacing, which “would have saved the lives of one or two children. The same period saw perhaps 1,300 child pedestrians killed and around 40,000 seriously injured, most in streets close to their homes” (Gill 2007 p. 29). Thus he questions the raison d’etre behind certain safety decision that have been made.

The message which Gill and other researchers give us is that, like adults, children need time to ‘chill out’ and care must be taken to enable them to have this time by ensuring that they have opportunities to play.


Gill T (2007) No Fear. Growing up in a risk averse society Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, London

Hughes B (2001) Evolutionary Playwork and Reflective Analytic Practice Routledge, London

Santer J and Griffiths C with Goodall D (2007) Free Play in Childhood. A Literature Review National Children’s Bureau, London

This article was first published in OMEP UK Update No. 129 March 2008. OMEP is an international professional organisation which focuses on early years child care and education. For more information on OMEP go to:

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